Jalen Hurd has been at Tennessee just a month after enrolling early, and the elite running back signee is turning heads in Knoxville.
Once he's 100-percent cleared from the shoulder surgery that caused him to miss most of his senior year, the 6'3", 230-pound tailback will surge to the top of the depth chart this spring and start for the Vols over Marlin Lane on Aug. 30 against Utah State.
People around the football team are gushing about Hurd already.
"Let's just put it this way: a number of people around the program have told me Hurd is Tennessee's quickest and fastest tailback, and you can already look at the roster and tell he's the biggest, so when you put all that together, that's good for Jalen Hurd," said GoVols247's Wes Rucker.
"Obviously, with a back that size, pad leverage is usually going to be a concern, but once Hurd figures out how to keep his pads down, he shouldn't have any big problems if he stays healthy."
UT head coach Butch Jones told Patrick Brown of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, "We fully anticipate Jalen, barring any setbacks, to probably be ready for spring football…"
Perhaps, anointing the Hendersonville, Tenn., native as the starter before his first practice is bold, especially with UT returning senior Lane, who gained 534 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry while backing up 1,000-yard rusher Rajion Neal.
But a player of Hurd's ilk and stature deserves boldness. Young men that big shouldn't be able to run as fast as he does—he runs a 4.37 40-yard dash, according to studentsports.com.
He is fast enough to run through defenders and powerful enough to run over them. He can catch the football out of the backfield and was recruited by other teams to play multiple positions.
With that skill set, it's going to be impossible for a Tennessee team desperately needing playmakers to keep him off the field.
|Can Vols Turn Lane Into An Every-Down Back? (career stats)|
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Even with all the fanfare surrounding Hurd, Lane will enter spring practice as the favorite to start. He has experience, brings a hard-nosed style to the Vols' running attack and has proven he can be productive before.
But can he be an every-down back in the SEC?
Nothing in Lane's Tennessee career suggests he can. The 5'11", 205-pound Daytona Beach, Fla., native suffered a devastating knee injury in high school, and it has affected his speed ever since. He's simply never fully recovered.
While he has proven he can get tough yards, he just doesn't have breakaway speed.
Also, Lane stays banged up. Though he is far from a china doll who misses a lot of games, he hasn't proven he can make it through an entire season healthy—and that's without a full workload. Hurd has experienced some injury issues, too, so it'll be interesting to see if either stays completely healthy.
When he was younger, Lane struggled with fumbles. He lost just one in 2013, which was a major improvement, but he has to continue to prove that his maturation matches his strides on the field.
After all, Lane spent much of the last offseason suspended for undisclosed reasons. Neal spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Brown about Lane returning from his suspension prior to last season:
Marlin's hungry. He had ball taken away from him, man, and they truly say you don't know what you have till it's gone. I think he truly realized that in a matter of a second, ball could have been over for him. You could tell he's come out here with a different mindset.
If Lane stays hungry with an SEC starting gig and potential NFL dollars on the line, it'll breed a healthy competition with Hurd and incoming running back Derrell Scott. Whether that drive is enough to hold off a superior talent like Hurd is questionable.
Tennessee has seen runners emerge late in their careers before, such as Neal and Montario Hardesty, who shed the oft-injured label long enough to send their careers out in style. Lane must do the same to hold his tenuous grip on the starting role.
He will be pushed, and he'll likely be passed. Hurd is too big, too strong, too fast, and there will be too much buzz around him to not give the Tennessee native an extended look running the ball.
Lane will have a big role again in 2014, just as he has throughout his entire career. But Hurd is a transcendent kind of runner who the Vols haven't seen since their heyday.
If he stays healthy, the talent differential will propel Hurd into the starting role, but regardless of whether he gets the season's first carry or not, he'll have an immediate impact on UT's revamped offense.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.